“I have only questions,” stated director Warwick Thornton when asked by Sight and Sound about his 2009 Camera d’Or-winning feature film debut, Samson and Delilah. It is not surprising, given the film’s lack of dialogue, handheld camera and aversion to making anything more than the vaguest of connections to the original biblical Samson and Delilah.
Adhering to an ethos of respecting the audience’s intelligence Thornton does not spoon-feed, and succeeds in his desire that viewers should experience the events of the film with its characters. The story is the loosely-structured tale of two Aboriginal teenagers from a rundown village in central Australia. Samson (Rowan McNamara) is addicted to huffing petrol and slips in and out of awareness of his surroundings. However, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) holds Samson’s attention and he begins to spend his abundance of time silently following her around the village. Delilah rebuffs Samson’s advances, but, following her Grandma (Mitjili Gibson)’s death, the two become each other’s only support.
Having grown up in a similar community, Thornton wanted to make a film that was truthful to his experiences. Where some may claim that it is pretentious to make a film where the main characters do not exchange any dialogue, for Thornton it accurately expresses the teenage experience. In justifying the decision in an interview in Sight and Sound, Thornton stated that “when I was 13 and fell in love, I couldn’t talk to the girl, I threw rocks at her”. This has many effects on the film, as not only is the viewer left to watch rather than listen, it draws the audience together through shared experience; many of us have been the victims or perpetrators of mild bullying stemming from love. This is especially important in a film about a minority group as it points out the similarities in the human experience regardless of race or class.
Both race and class are very dominant themes in this film, with a stark distinction between the lives of the aboriginal and white characters. The first introduction of a white character is a mixed bag: he has taken the time to learn some Warlpiri, and helps sell the grandma’s artwork, but he is very short with Samson loitering outside his shop, and it is later discovered that he is making a large profit on the grandma’s artwork.
A more symbolic moment comes later in the film, where Delilah tries to sell her artwork to patrons of a cafe. All are white, glance at her painting and then ignore her. When a more desperate and visibly beaten Delilah attempts this again in another scene, she is treated to the same disregard, despite only being 13 and clearly in need of help. Delilah’s artwork is in a traditional style unique to the Aboriginal culture, and her silently holding it up to her white compatriots seems to symbolise the general and current attitude toward indigenous Australians.
Thornton was apprehensive of what indigenous Australians would think of his film. Indeed the portrayal of indigenous life is extremely sad, though the film does end on a delicately positive note. It is not a film about how things could be, but very much how they are for many people. Though unlikely to be a revelation to anyone, indigenous or otherwise, Thornton did succeed in creating more discussion in Australia, while also proving that a story focused on two Aboriginal characters could be a success.
Visually Samson and Delilah is spacious and realistic, working with the vastness of the outback but also the isolation and space that is unique to the feeling of the Antipodes. This complements the mental space that the lack of dialogue creates and the grounding of the mostly diegetic music. The combination of silence and space offers little to mark time passing, giving the film little feeling of progression or urgency, like it perhaps feels to live your life moment-to-moment huffing petrol.
Though Samson and Delilah is marketed as a love story, the film is not one of passion; there is only one kiss in the film, and it is not especially romantic. The film shows love in a different light; it shows love as quiet, resilient, and persistent. This makes the title seem somewhat inappropriate. After all, in the Bible Delilah betrays Samson by cutting off his hair which saps him of his superhuman strength. In the film, one could argue that Delilah is Samson’s strength; it is she who protects and nurses him when his addiction has got the better of him.
In an interview for ilovefilm.com Thornton explains that many members of the Aboriginal community have biblical names and that religion appears incidentally in everyday life. One could argue that was a misstep by Thornton – using a title with so much weight and its own story for his own – but equally, this kind of cultural appropriation has extra significance given the subject of the film.
Samson and Delilah makes you work. It is not a film for the casual cinema-goer. Though it has moments of humour, its tone is of hope surrounded by disadvantage. That said, it is a very important entry in the canon of films starring indigenous people, and such stories need to be captured because their themes need to be acknowledged and understood. The film’s success has also paved the way for other, more widely palatable films, such as 2012’s The Sapphires, a musical about an Aboriginal all-female singing group. Samson and Delilah is proof that indigenous cinema is not only important but that it can also be successful on a global scale.